There’s no way around it: Duke’s offensive line could make or break its success this season.
We saw what happened last year when miscues at the line left quarterback Daniel Jones vulnerable to stout pass rushes—one of the ACC’s highly-touted quarterbacks was left with almost no room to breathe during a six-game downward spiral.
And if the Blue Devils opt to focus on their running game—a likely scenario after redshirt sophomore running back Brittain Brown injected life into last year’s sometimes anemic offensive scheme—Duke needs to be rock-solid in the trenches.
But faced with the task of replacing three starters—including vocal team leader, captain and talented center Austin Davis—head coach David Cutcliffe and offensive line coach Jim Bridge will have to find the right mix of talent from a pool with limited experience to cover the Blue Devils’ front line.
“We’ve had to replace some people, but I think we’ve challenged those young people back to starting in December,” Cutcliffe said. “Jim Bridge has done a terrific job.... I’m anxious to see our young people. I think we have the chance to be good there, but we have to earn it.”
The biggest question looming over Duke’s line is who will fill Davis’ shoes—and how exactly they plan on doing so. Redshirt senior Zach Harmon, a starter from last year’s line with nearly 1,600 snaps to his name, is slated to get the call. However, despite being recruited as a center out of high school, the Toledo, Ohio, native has spent his last two years on the field alternating between the left and right guard positions.
“It has been beneficial for me playing both left and right guard—you learn the offense so much better at different positions and you get a different perspective on what each position feels like on the offensive line,” Harmon said. “I was recruited as a center and played my first two years as a center, transitioned left guard my junior year and last year I was right, so it’s nice being back where I’m most comfortable.”
Whether or not Harmon can slide easily into the role of center, he is one of two projected starters with five years of experience and one of the only returning linemen who saw action in every game last season. But the former guard is not Duke’s only option to man the position.
After a somewhat unexpected eligibility ruling from the NCAA, the Blue Devils now have the option to turn to Ohio State transfer Jack Wohlabaugh to man the position.
Like Harmon, Wohlabaugh offers the versatility to play both center and guard. Although the redshirt sophomore never saw the field as a Buckeye thanks to being first-team All-American Billy Price’s understudy, Wohlabaugh was the No. 4 center prospect in the class of 2015 and will likely give Harmon a run for his money to take on the role. Wohlabaugh adds a crucial level of depth—and some healthy competition—to a position the Blue Devils need to nail down if they want to hope for another winning season.
“I keep seeing Jack Wohlabaugh—does he make himself one of the best five?” Cutcliffe said. “It’s an interesting thing, whether it be guard or backup guard or him at center. There are others that are trying to make moves, which is good to see.”
Outside of the battle for center, Duke has four more slots to fill to complete its offensive line—and plenty of former reserves looking to carve out their spot next to the few returning veterans.
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Holding down the starting slot at left guard will be junior Julian Santos. In his 2017 season, Santos started all 13 contests and is one of five Duke offensive linemen with more than 400 snaps of experience. And filling out the far side will be left tackle Christian Harris, a redshirt senior who appeared in 11 games last season with one career start under his belt.
Sophomore Rakavius Chambers is expected to start at right guard. After Santos, he was just the second true freshman offensive lineman to see game action in the Cutcliffe Era and played in every game last season, albeit as a reserve. Rounding out the line at right tackle will be redshirt sophomore Robert Kraeling, an towering presence who, like Chambers, saw the field in every contest last season off the bench.
Although Duke’s projected starters on paper are the Blue Devils’ best options in terms of talent and experience, some projected reserves may have what it takes to earn a start in case of injury or a dip in performance. Redshirt sophomore Jaylen Miller can potentially fill in as both a left and a right tackle, taking on a similar role as both Kraeling and Harris did last year. Redshirt junior Zach Baker could make a strong case as an option in the interior, as he played in 12 games last season—though he will be hard-pressed to match Santos or Chambers.
“That’s what I want to see out of our people,” Cutcliffe said. “Zach Baker is the number two left guard right now. Out of where I came from, that doesn’t sit very well with you for very long. We have some people that can compete.”
With so many question marks surrounding such an integral component of Duke’s offensive scheme, it’s unclear how the Blue Devils will fare in 2018. If Duke wants another shot at bowling following its challenging regular-season schedule, Cutcliffe needs to find the right mix to keep Jones comfortable.
“We’ve come together really solid,” Harmon said. “We’ve had a few weeks now to get our footing playing next to each other. We’ve tried a few different variations on people up there, but we’re kind of like a big puzzle where no matter what piece we put in there, we’re going to be pretty solid.”